Voynich map observations and notes


1. The Voynich Map – a god’s eye view

published as a post to Voynich Revisionist – March 25th., 2019.


The Voynich map is much in the online news at the moment and having the honour to have written the first analytical study of it, I thought I’d add something here which adds to the work which I did over 2010-2013, issuing online excerpts from that study from 2011.

(Two additional illustrations added with comment, 26th March 2019 from the original posts published at voynichimagery  in 2012.)

One of the best informed and most intellectually honest comments about the Voynich manuscript I’ve encountered is that made by Erwin Panofsky in 1932 after having spent two hours studying it.  He said, quite simply, that apart from one folio which resembled a diagram in a Spanish work on astronomy, the manuscript was like none he’d ever seen before.  Perhaps it takes a scholar of his eminence and secure sense of self to say something like that.  For others it has always proved an irresistible temptation to settle for ‘nearest fit’ from among their own areas of interest.

The Voynich map is, as my readers will probably know, not like any from the medieval European or the medieval Islamic corpus, so far as our extant examples allow us to judge.

Nor was it made all at once.

It has a first stratum which in my opinion originated in the Hellenistic world.

Its second stratum is denoted by the addition of certain architectural structures and these by their form and style I should date to about the eleventh- thirteenth century.

But it then underwent a major copying-and-revision which, by comparing certain internal details to events in political and economic history, I date to approximately 1290-1330.

This last recension  saw a detail moved, which had originally occupied the north roundel. It was evidently shifted to occupy the  North-western roundel (at the cost of one ‘rose’ of the original four). In its place, filling the North roundel, was drawn a map of a rather different sort: one which does not place its details by cardinal points as a map does, but proportionally within a circular ‘itinerary’. Luckily, its north and south points were securely anchored.   The details in that circular itinerary show its focus is on the eastern side of the Mediterranean; more exactly on that north-south route which in classical terms would be described as the Black Sea to Egypt grain route, and in terms of the medieval political situation, the  Serai-Constantinople-Cairo axis.

The feature on which I want to comment here is without parallel from extant examples of European or Islamic maps. The map’s points of East and West are reversed from what the norm according to both  major western cartographic traditions.  What I should like to say more definitely now  – but which was earlier mentioned as one of several possible explanations – is that I believe the map from which was gained the basis for our current sheet had been originally on a ceiling, or a globe. The shape of the map suggests the former more likely.

The map’s cardinal points are shown quite clearly and cannot be confused for one another.   East is denoted by the sun rising over a flat mountain-top; west by the flaming sun sinking head first.

The emblem for South may be recognised by classical and ancient scholars, for it was widely known and employed in the eastern Mediterranean through the period from the pre-classical to the early Christian era.  It is  seen occasionally used with its correct significance in some few works of the earlier Christian centuries though employed more with an apotropaic sense – as “shield against the southern fires”. It is not common in European works  – at least not with that ancient sense, the Evangelists’ page from the Book of Kells containing the best example. (TCD MS 58 f27v)

For the North emblem, the map shows a circular town or city, divided into three and joined to the wider world by a highway and a by-way.  To those better acquainted with Latin mappaemundi and Isidore’s “T-O” diagram, the emblem immediately recalls those, but the impression is dispelled on closer scrutiny. In the illustration below, I’ve enlarged  that emblem so that readers can appreciate the form given the town or city taken as marker of the far north.  One sees its palisades, canals, the great highway to the east on its embankment, and the rougher ‘cart-track’ passing towards the south.

To show that this map conforms neither to the south-orientation of Islamic maps, nor to the north-orientation we expect today –  and conforms not at all to the style of a medieval Latin mappamundi –  I add the following illustration.


These directions are confirmed – and in fact demanded – by the location of certain unique topographic features, including the Cappadocian chimneys and the enormous crescentic dunes of the Taklamakan..

The dunes appear, as they should, flanking the road which leaves the far north and passes east (illustrations, left), and on which is seen a building with the typically uplifted gables of inner Asia.*

*this structure and the one adjacent to are shown topped with a simple ornament – which is not a cross, but characteristic of an older, and now rare, architectural style.   The comparative example provided in the illustration (right) is not an identification but shows one of our remaining examples of the type: the oldest part of the complex of Bhimakali dated to c.1200 AD.

The Cappadocian chimneys  are drawn – again just where they should be – north east of the often-mentioned ‘Castle’ – which last, long hours of labour finally revealed was a token for Constantinople and/or Pera,  as seen on approach from the sea.

All the observations above were made over the course of the original study with excerpts  published online between 2011 and 2013, and then more additions and updates treating details earlier omitted. The last addition was this month when, thanks to an image published by JKP on his blog, I was able to add the identification of Stromboli to a detail in the western quadrant. The original commentary included the usual range of documentation and explanatory material – textual, comparative iconographic,  historical, technical and where necessary archaeological.

Here, I wish to thank Nick Pelling (who would probably prefer I didn’t).   It was his describing the drawing as a ‘hurricane of oddness’ in a post of 2010  which led me to take on the job of providing ‘Voynicheros’  with a formal analytical study of the drawing that had bewildered us all, by then, for nearly a hundred years.

At that time, and in the first flush of ‘Voynich’ innocence, my only aim was to contribute something of lasting value on which the linguists and cryptographers might rely.  I have no interest in, or any natural talent for,  cryptography or linguistics but pictures are ‘my thing’.  Previous areas and subjects of study certainly helped; but even so what I had thought would be the task of perhaps two weeks: ten days of research and three or four to write up a decent-sized essay, took almost all the time I could spare for nearly three years, and the proportion of research to writing – especially over Constantinople’s identification – was at times nearer 9:1.

The map isn’t easy.  Well, had it been it wouldn’t have been still a ‘hurricane of (unexplained) oddness’ in 2010.

Roughly eighteen months or so of stunned (or indifferent) silence followed the first phase of my publishing excerpts online.

Then gradually one and then another writer began trying to re-work the map’s explanation to a more Eurocentric-friendly one – mostly by taking a Latin diagram or map suited to their theory or taste and then imposing it on the Voynich map.  Each seemed to find the Voynich map stubbornly uncooperative.  Now, with a new crop of Voynich-interested persons and a flurry of renewed interest in the Voynich map,  I hope at last the currently-interested linguists and cryptographers may put the information to good use from what I suppose would usually be called the seminal study. Perhaps I should at least re-open those posts from Voynichimagery – well, maybe.

But, to the point.  The apparently paradoxical reversal of the map’s East and West can be  understood by analogy with those ‘reversed’ drawings in al-Sufi’s Book of the Fixed Stars, and which al-Sufi himself explained in his text.  I’ve taken the following illustration and description not from  Oxford, Bodley Marsh MS 144. but from Hafez’ thesis – mainly as an excuse to mention it.1.

As I see it, at a time that I would judge to be during the Hellenistic era, a map of the ways from as far as Sicily or Carthage in the west to as far as the eastern limits of Alexander’s empire in the east was made  – this being the range covered by the Voynich map – and that this map was carved or painted at some – presumably later – stage onto a ceiling or, less likely given its square form – a globe.  The person who copied it first onto a sheet – of papyrus or paper – simply didn’t make the ‘reversal’ from a celestial to terrestrial point of view.

To a modern reader it might seem preposterous – even outrageous –  that any map which includes Carthage or Sicily should not also refer to  Rome, or to Jerusalem but this is the case.  The original makers and users of the map (perhaps to as late as the 1330s) either knew nothing, or cared nothing for the world of Latin Europe – or for its holiest cities.

But perhaps that shouldn’t come as so great a surprise.  Georg Baresh, who had the manuscript for decades and whose letter to Athanasius Kircher, written in 1637, offers our first glimpse of the manuscript,  made clear that he understood the content to have been brought by some man of quality from “eastern parts”.2


1.Ihsan Hafez, (2010) Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi and his book of the fixed stars: a journey of re-discovery . PhD thesis, James Cook University.

2. The letter of Georgius Barschius to Athanasius Kircher (1637) – see  transliteration, translation and notes by Philip Neal.



2. Voynich map – a couple of footnotes.


Note 1. re: Spherical geometry

Note 2.  re: Camera obscura, perhaps?